Sunday 6 May 2018

Movie Review: A Perfect World (1993)

An escaped prisoner chase drama, A Perfect World is an engrossing study of an unlikely surrogate father-son relationship blossoming under the most unlikely circumstances.

The setting is rural Texas on Halloween, 1962. Convicted killers Butch Haynes (Kevin Costner) and Terry Pugh (Keith Szarabajka) break out of prison, seize eight year old boy Philip Perry (T.J. Lowther) hostage, and escape in a stolen car into the sparsely populated countryside. Butch is smooth and cerebral, Pugh is gruff and uncontrollable, and soon they have a showdown. Butch emerges victorious and continues his escape with Philip for company.

Grizzled Texas Ranger Red Garnett (Clint Eastwood) is tasked with tracking down the escapees, and he is unhappy to be joined by criminologist Sally Gerber (Laura Dern) and an FBI sniper (Bradley Whitford). Red commandeers the Governor's high-tech trailer as his command-post-on-wheels for the chase. On the road, Butch and Philip warm up to each other. Both grew up without stable father figures, and Butch revels in playing a protective and fatherly role. Philip starts to enjoy the freedom of being away from his strict Jehovah's Witness mother, but Red will not give up his dogged pursuit.

Directed by Eastwood and written by John Lee Hancock, A Perfect World is a lyrical masterpiece. Featuring some of Costner's best acting work, a robust quest-for-freedom story, and the subtle forging of a man-child bond under duress, the film is a deep breath drawn from the air of making things right under all the wrong conditions. At two hours and twenty minutes, the pace is relaxed, the scenes extended to allow the emotion to seep through the narrative fabric and leave a rich impression.

Eastwood invests deliberate time to bring Butch Haynes to life as a memorably complex cinematic anti-hero. Butch was handed a bum deal early in life, and he made the worst of it, but given an unlikely opportunity to make some amends, he will take his shot to deliver what he never received. He effortlessly slips into the role of father and mentor, teaching, guiding and empowering Philip. Against the wide open Texas backdrops, the intimate scenes between Costner and youngster T. J. Lowther are some of the most affecting and honest screen portrayals of interaction between man and child.

And yet despite revealing the potential for rounded edges, Butch never loses the essence of who he is as a ruthless criminal, and the film wickedly drives to its conclusion about what, exactly, makes for a perfect combination of attributes in the world of men and boys.

The team in pursuit led by Eastwood's Red Garnett offers kinetic energy, internal tension, and no small amount of comic relief, as Philip's would-be rescuers struggle to catch up with Butch's cross-Texas excapade. Garnett is a mature and relatively settled-down version of Dirty Harry transported to rural Texas, while Laura Dern's Sally Gerber is the early-version psychological profiler trying to get into the criminal mind. Sally is obviously the polar opposite of all that Red stands for, and the evolution of their relationship adds an extra dimension to the film.

Expansive in ambition and scope yet affectionate and personal in scale, A Perfect World combines the best of both worlds.

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